UCF's ability to control the line of scrimmage with the running game was a key part of Friday's win. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
If No. 8 Louisville was supposed to march through the AAC without any trouble, nobody bothered to tell UCF. The Knights went into Louisville on Friday and shocked the Cardinals, 38-35, killing any talk of Louisville as BCS Championship contenders and putting Charlie Strong's team at real risk of missing out on the American Athletic Conference's automatic BCS bid.
Louisville didn't exactly blow anybody away with its win over Rutgers last Thursday, and those discounting the Louisville schedule will point to these two games as reason enough the Cardinals aren't elite or in the class of the top of the SEC, Pac-12 or even the ACC -- where they'll play next season.
Against a feisty UCF team, rankings or national perception didn't matter. Escaping with a win was the only thing the Cardinals cared about, and they couldn't take care of business on Homecoming. The AAC is extremely top heavy, and the team to make it out of this game alive had the fast track to an automatic BCS bowl bid. The Knights already beat Penn State and gave South Carolina a game earlier this season. While George O'Leary's team wasn't ranked coming into this game, it very well could have been. Coming into today, Football Outsiders had the Knights No. 23 based on their efficiency index -- Louisville was third.
Although the battle between Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles was the story coming into the game, the running game was a major factor for both teams. UCF's Storm Johnson and William Stanback combined for 174 yards and three touchdowns, and a fumble by Louisville's Senorise Perry deep in his own territory with 4:44 left in the third helped swing the momentum toward the Knights.
UCF rallied to score back-to-back touchdowns and cut the deficit to 28-21. Another rushing touchdown by the Knights with :30 left in the third quarter and it was a tie game. With a soft schedule, Louisville hadn't played a complete 60 minutes against a marquee opponent, and this was another game where the Cardinals left the door open. It finally bit them.
“They kept clawing away, fighting back,” O’Leary said of his team in a postgame interview with ESPN. “One score, another score."
A 34-yard field goal by Shawn Moffitt gave the Knights a 31-28 lead, and for the first time in 2013, the Cardinals found themselves trailing.
The air seemed to go out of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium with that counterpunch from UCF, and everyone looked to Teddy Bridgewater to help the Cardinals regain their composure. Sometimes mistakes pile up to the point where they're impossible to come back from. Louisville's chances were hurt by the Perry fumble, as well as a fumble by Ryan Hubbell late in the first quarter that touched the UCF pylon and gave the Knights a touchback.
There's the expectation the Louisville Heisman Trophy candidate can carry his team for a reason, and he made a couple of drive-saving plays on the Cardinals' next possession, including a shovel pass to Dominique Brown on third down that looked like a play a five-year NFL veteran would make -- shades of vintage Brett Favre. Brown scored on the next play, and Louisville retook the lead.
Bridgewater finished the game 29-of-38 for 338 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough to keep Louisville's dream season hopes alive. Bortles engineered some magic of his own, driving the Knights 75 yards in 2:37, capped off by a Jeff Godfrey two-yard touchdown to put UCF up 38-35 with under 30 seconds to play.
Nobody gave anyone else a shot in the AAC, but UCF now controls its own destiny. And Louisville is left still looking up in the rankings, this time in its own conference.